Lunar Design's Journey Towards Green

Lunar Design's Journey Towards Green

As Lunar Design strives to bring sustainability to product design, it's developed a company-wide initiative, called Elements, to guide both the greening of its internal operations and the products it makes.

Travis Lee, Lunar's sustainable engineering lead, and Alberto Villarreal , the company's senior lead designer, spoke with GreenBiz Radio about clients asking for greener designs, the challenges of lowering product impacts, and how Lunar helped HP reduce materials and save money.

Jonathan Bardelline: How does Lunar Design approach the issue of sustainability with clients? Does it depend on the client, on the project or is it something that you try to integrate into every project?

Travis Lee: Well, it's generally one or the other and sometimes a little bit of both. We've approached, especially early on in a lot of our more sustainable endeavors, we approached it from a place where we were definitely introducing it to a lot of our clients and trying to work it in. But it was in a much less, I think, obvious way. It wasn't in the way that we work in other types of work like putting it in proposals and having it as a line item on the schedule. It was more as a general discussion to try and get their feel for it.

We did have clients approach us from time to time with some sustainable ideas. They were, at the beginning, usually fairly small. They weren't very large in scope. They were just, "Hey, can we reduce some material here? Could we lighten this up a little bit there?" Those were a little few and far between, but they did happen.

These days, it's a little more involved how we approach our clients. In some cases, we do actually put line items in the schedule and in the proposal that are focused purely on sustainability, whether they're life cycle analyses or just general sustainability input and review.

But throughout all of the projects, regardless of whether they have a very obvious sustainability lean or not, I think we're big believers in that little changes in the design, they don't always have to be on that level where, sometimes where clients are even involved. Sustainable design is such a nuanced and everyday practice that it can be sort of done just as a normal part of what we do. So it just becomes wrapped up in the overall package.

And we don't really have to point it out, I think, is the goal.  So, Alberto, do you have anything to add?

Alberto Villarreal: It's also, like you said, it's becoming more and more natural for clients to include that in the conversations at least. And it's also becoming kind of just another tool or just another step in the design process that we have to touch base on. 

Hopefully this is going to be becoming a stronger requirement and starting to become also part of the briefings and part of the requirements documents that the clients come to us as opposed to just being part of the conversation. So we are seeing that more and more with some of our clients.

JB: And are you seeing clients being more educated on some of these issues, when they're coming to you, they start talking about specific things they want to see out of the end product instead of it coming from you and saying, "Did you know you could do this? Do you know you could do that?" Is it more clients have an idea of what they want out of their products?

TL: From time to time. It usually takes some prodding to get the right person in the room. I would say often when these projects get started, it's not uncommon to have to really ask who the sustainability steward is and if we can get in touch with them and if we can start the conversation with them. 

And it's natural for not all of the project managers at larger companies to be trained in this and there are a lot of projects going on at once. And so I think it's important to get a hold of the right people who have that knowledge and that pull within the company to make things happen. And once you make that contact, those people are very helpful and full of good ideas. 

JB: Could you talk a bit about the Elements initiative, since you're both on the Elements team and I'm specifically interested in some of the best practices that you've researched and cataloged as part of that initiative.

TL: Sure. The Elements initiative was really a coalescing of individual initiatives that were going on here at Lunar for years and years. We had individual designers and engineers working on sustainable design at their own pace with their own data and information gathering. 

And we decided at one point that it would make a lot more sense and be much more efficient and I think beneficial to our clients and the company to really bring this together into one much more cohesive group that we called Lunar Elements. 

And what Elements allows us to do is we meet as a group, we set a direction that Lunar Elements as a whole would like to take in sustainable design. And that direction involves internal training of our designers and engineers. It involves external training of people out there in the world, if we could do conference talks to get our ideas out there to help people. It includes data gathering. It includes internal things like calculating our own carbon footprint and seeing how we can make the office more sustainable, and not just our designs.

And it involves changing or evolving the culture at Lunar, the sustainable culture at Lunar, to make sure that people are always thinking about this. We really believe here that we kind of need to walk the walk if we're going to talk the talk. And sustainability is best practiced as a lifestyle and the designs more easily flow if your life is sustainable.

So that's one aspect of Elements. We take care of business here at Lunar and try and figure out how we can become a more sustainable company. And then the other aspect is sustainable design, like I said, training designers and engineers.  I don't know if you've seen The Designer's Field Guide to Sustainability that we wrote recently as part of a training course for our designers and engineers.

JB: Yes, I've seen it and I was actually wondering how you use it within your own operations.

TL: Well, we use it as, hopefully everyone else is using it, too, which is one of the reasons we made it public. We use it to inform our designers and engineers. We also use it to create conversations.

One of the things about The Designer's Field Guide to Sustainability is we in no way try to claim that it's a completely comprehensive, sustainable design guide because no sustainable design guide is completely comprehensive. What it really does it is helps create conversations at the right time.

So what we want it to be able to do is help designers and engineers ask the right questions and have a little bit of informed input as to where those answers should be found at given stages of the design that are appropriate to where the design is.

JB: Something I found interesting about The Field Guide is that there's no numbers associated with certain choices or issues, that it leaves it a lot up to the user to determine what impacts those different choices have, and then from there, have an overall view of, "Is this product really sustainable? What level is it?" and just kind of have a general idea of that instead of saying it's a number.

TL: Yeah, and that was done very deliberately, I think. As questions filtered in from our designers to the Elements team and we would talk to them about different designs, it became very apparent that every design is a very case-specific problem and needs to be solved as such. And blanket statements, and especially number crunching, it has a tendency to either pull the cynics out of the woodwork and they say, "Well, that doesn't work in this case because..." or it also has a tendency to turn some people off because it's a little too much effort or it's a little too confusing. 

And so I think the idea of The Field Guide was to provide broad ideas that can have a very specific impact. There are tips that can be implemented every day on some level in a very specific, project-specific way. But there are tips that need to be discussed first with that project in mind and ideas that need to be batted around in order to take this direction and really narrow it down to the actual change that's going to be made.

AV: And I think this is the first revision of that document that we've created and I think the great value of it is that it really makes you think during the design process what you're designing and what you're doing and how much impact that's going to have. And at least it makes you question it and start becoming more knowledgeable about it when you face a decision between, for example, a painted part versus a different process like...

TL: Like a molding color.

AV: Yeah, or a powder coating. Then you start researching about those particular processes and then you become more knowledgeable. And you might find that the process that you first wanted to achieve for a particular finish, it's more impactful on the environment than another one and you might have to switch to a different finish. 

And I think also the value of this document is that we publish it out there and we want to get feedback from the design community. It's not something that's proprietary that we want to just keep to ourselves. I think it's exactly the opposite. We want to create kind of an open source type of thinking where people participate and give us feedback and then we, as a community, create something that will help everyone become more aware of the problems and more knowledgeable.

JB: You spoke earlier about how you're seeing sustainability being integrated at kind of different levels within different projects, some more so than others. Are there any examples of projects you've worked on in which sustainability was a very high priority and it really shows it in either the actual final product or its final use and purpose?

TL: Sure, yeah. I think maybe one good example of that is the HP Slimline PCs. One of HP's really large goals in creating the Slimline PC was to reduce the amount of raw materials that they were trying to use. I think they looked at the technology and said, "Well, there's no reason that these PCs need to be so big and so wasteful."

And so they came to us and asked us to help them design and engineer a much, much smaller footprint PC. It resulted in shipping savings and raw material savings like metals and plastics that they use. We also tried to help reduce wasteful processes like painting, so we've tried to pull all the paint out and make it as modular as possible. 

That was an example, I think, of a project where sustainability was a very high priority. We work in an industry that I think is very difficult to, probably with our current client set, to create truly sustainable designs. 

And I guess that there's a caveat with that which is generally, we talked about here in the Elements group, that designs are never sustainable, whole systems are sustainable.  And so if we only treat the design as sort of a closed part of the system, then we'll never be able to make it as good as it is.  So we try to look at factors like will the design at its end of life, encourage people to recycle it because it's easy to take part and because it's obvious that these are recyclable parts. 

That being said, a lot of the consumer electronics companies that come to us and ask us to design MP3 players or computers or something along those lines, there's probably a limit to the sustainable nature of those at least given the current technology. And they're progressing, they're ever progressing. But when we get these projects, we try to do what we can to make them as least impactful as possible knowing that we're not going to get HP to convince Intel to design a new chip that doesn't use any silicone. It's probably not going to happen. There are limits there that we have to work within. But it provides, definitely, a challenge that we look forward to trying to meet in each of our designs. 

We have some more simplified things that we've worked on which are more towards the end of consumer products than electronics. Unfortunately, some of them are still confidential. Alberto, can you think of some consumer products that have been released in the last year maybe?

AV: Well, there are perhaps some examples where we can't talk specifically about product names or client names, but where we significantly reduced the amount of plastic that's used for an enclosure or with laying the components in a different way in the circuit board, we reduced the size of the product and that reduces the amount of material that's used. Or where we've reduced the number of parts and eliminated inserts in the plastic parts so that it's only plastic and there's no other materials. Where we get rid of co-molded parts, where we, for example, instead of having another printing process on top of plastic parts, we create a logo type or a new graphic application as part of the mold. 

And a lot of the times, these implementations also have a cost impact. Most of the time clients are also happy to hear. And it's also an interesting way of having a valid point on our said that it's easy to accept on the client's side.

TL: You know, I think as far as the clients we deal with, like we said, some are more susceptible to others to working with us on this front. One of the ones that we work with from time to time is, obviously very interested in this, is Sun Power. They're a very large producer of solar energy. And we've done some projects with them.

We did some work on their T-20 tracker model. They're basically sun-tracking panels. One of the things that Sun Power wanted to do is they wanted to reduce the amount of waste and energy involved in installations of the panels. And basically what they were looking to do is obviously to bring down cost, because bringing down cost will get more people to commit to buying the solar panels in the first place and will save the company some money.

But they also wanted to just bring down waste because they're a very environmentally-conscious group. And so it's something that's important to them and they were willing to put a little more effort into ideas that had to do with nesting of the anchors for the solar panels so that we could ship them more efficiently, using lightweight, high-strength concrete or in some cases even recycled plastic where they would normally use sheet metal which makes the final assembly a little easier to put together and a little lighter.

There are those clients out there and they're great to work with, who really have this as a high priority and are willing to pursue it at most any cost in the design. I think what we find in a lot of those projects is that in the end, we end up saving them money, which is great. Sustainability is kind of scary to some clients and they think that it will undoubtedly cost them money to make something more sustainable. And that's not always the case. A lot of the changes that we make end up saving cost and saving the client a little bit of cost in production and creating a higher quality product.

I think we try to look at sustainability as essentially another metric of quality and if a company has hired us to design them a quality product, part of that quality is its sustainability factor. Something being unsustainable is just the same as it being cheap or flimsy.